Getting under the skin of council budgets: what does good scrutiny look like?

Cllr Ketan Sheth

It’s a testing but all-too-familiar mix: funding cuts from central government, skyrocketing demand for local services, a growing population, tough choices and communities vulnerable as they recover from the social and economic shocks of the pandemic. As we approach budget setting, our situation in Brent – a NW London borough – mirrors the position of local authorities around the country.

​Against this challenging backdrop, I believe the role of effective Scrutiny is more important than ever, and so too is learning from one another.

This year, I co-chaired Brent Council’s Budget Scrutiny Task Group. It was our job to get under the skin of budget proposals, to grasp their real-world effects, to understand any mitigations, and to make recommendations where we felt the decisions of our Cabinet, and Full Council, could be strengthened.

To bring forward a balanced budget, this year we were called to scrutinise a package of savings totalling £2.7million, alongside Council Tax increases.

A deeper approach to scrutiny

Given the stark financial picture across the country, from the outset, we wanted to make sure that scrutiny was grounded in the complex reality of the difficult decisions that the Cabinet needed to take. We were determined that the scrutiny process must add value.

As a group, we worked with officers to develop a much broader approach than simply reviewing proposed savings. Instead of solely relying on the community consultation undertaken by the Cabinet, we went into detail on the impacts and sought out testimony from people on the ground. We felt we needed to get a deeper understanding of the experience of those who use Brent’s services and the complexity of their situations.

The idea was to test underlying assumptions made in the proposals, in order to give Cabinet and Full Council information and evidence to base their decisions on. We identified a number of areas to probe:

1. Impacts of Covid-19 on income from business rates, Council Tax and rents;

2. The impacts on health inequalities work when grant funding ends;

3. Implications of Covid-19 on the adult social care budget, especially mental health;

4. Pressures within the Dedicated School Grant; and

5. How the council’s £17m Covid-19 recovery package is being spent

The task group agreed a mix of less conventional scrutiny methods to build this holistic view, including focus groups and detailed evidence sessions with people on the ground. From local head teachers to voluntary and community sector partners, teams from our well-being  services, and Brent Hubs staff (Brent Hubs are spaces in the community bringing lots of services together under one roof to improve access for residents with more complex needs).

By taking this approach, we were able to assess the wider financial and service context, identify possible future budget pressures and the likely emerging needs of our communities.

It allowed us to make a number of nuanced, practical recommendations when reporting back. Most focused not on the savings themselves, but on how the Cabinet  might work differently to overcome and address some of those pressures. Helpfully, the group also identified areas where we felt the Council could effectively lobby for more support nationally and regionally. We’ve also put in place mechanisms for pulling insights from these testimonies as well as learnings from this deeper process through to future budget scrutiny cycles. Ultimately, we are all trying to deliver a better outcome for local people, and so I’m a big believer in the power of scrutiny to support good decision-making. I think that this is best realised by being a “critical friend”. The deeper, more contextual approach we took in Brent this year achieved just that, and I look forward to seeing these efforts bear fruit when the budget is taken to Full Council later this month.

Cllr Ketan Sheth is Brent Council’s Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee and co-chaired its Budget Scrutiny Task Group

Notwestminster: Writing the future of local democracy

Dave McKenna

Next month, Notwestminster takes place again after a year off.  

It’s an event that we love here at INLOGOV and have been delighted to support
previous events as well as go along and share some of our work such as the 21st
Century Councillor research

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s perhaps best described as a mini
festival of all things local democracy – an informal mix of workshops and
speakers that takes place in Huddersfield. This year it’s taking place in
the hallowed halls of Huddersfield University on Saturday 26th February.

What makes it really rock is the mix of people – volunteers, citizens, council
officers, councillors and yes, even academics, all mix together to discuss a
shared (and sometimes nerdy) appreciation of all things local democracy.

Here’s a section of the workshops to give a flavour:

• Pirates, Citizens and the future of local government

• Zines for democracy

• Creating 100 ideas for the North

• Dramatic Communication Strategies

• How can measuring political literacy help to improve local democracy?

• Fair and equal voting rights for young people across the UK

So, if you’re up for the challenge of renewing our democracy, please join in
for a day of workshops, quick-fire talks, conversations and inspiration in
Huddersfield. Notwestminster is a free event and everyone is welcome to
take part.

You can find out more and sign up here:

https://notinwestminster.wordpress.com/notwestminster-2022/

Hope to see you there.

 

Dave McKenna is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.

Petticoat Council – cheesy name, historic achievement

Chris Game

Nottingham Castle reopened to visitors recently, after a Covid-protracted three-year closure for what was anyway going to be a pretty extensive renovation. Even unrenovated, the castle has always been a good visit, not least for its exhibitions, which now include an enticingly named Rebellion Gallery, whose current Nottingham-focused displays, curated by University of Nottingham historian Dr Richard Gaunt, comprise the Civil War, the Luddite movement, and parliamentary reform with particular emphasis on women’s suffrage.

For reasons that will become clear, it was the last of these that particularly resonated with me – and one (poorly phone-photographed) bar chart in particular.

While its primary aim is presumably to emphasise the length of the continually frustrated campaign for women’s suffrage, it also showed how, near the start of that campaign, some women – those that “met the property ownership requirements” – actually lost their right to vote during the 1830s.

The otherwise franchise-extending 1832 Reform Act specified ‘male persons’ only, depriving at least small numbers of property-owning women of their parliamentary vote until 1918. And the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act excluded them from local elections – until 1869/70, when unmarried women ratepayers were granted the right to vote in first municipal council and then the new school board elections.

Between those dates, though, and with no confounding documentary evidence, it was widely believed, and taught, even in Patricia Hollis’ ‘bible’ – Ladies Elect: Women in English Local Government, 1865-1914 (Appendix B) – that women lost their voting rights completely, just like the 0%, 0%, 0% on the Nottingham bar chart.

Taught by me too, until a few years ago when I caught by chance a BBC Sounds broadcast describing the discovery of documentary evidence of at least some West Midlands women casting votes in local elections decades before those history books told us the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act legalised it.

The BBC programme described the recent discovery in Lichfield Record Office of an 1843 Poll Book. Compiled apparently for local Conservative Party campaigning purposes, it detailed all voters in that year’s St Chad’s Parish election of an Assistant Overseer of the Poor – the bloke (naturally) with responsibility for outdoor (cash) or indoor (workhouse) poor relief.

And of the 371 voters in that 1843 election …. 30 were women, including one, an evidently very well-heeled Grace Brown, with no fewer than four votes. It was a genuine, history-rewriting discovery – though not in fact the main point of this blog.

For that we must turn to the programme’s presenter: Sarah Richardson, nowadays Professor of History at Warwick University, and author of the then recently published The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain.

Totally relevant, obviously, but Richardson’s even more pertinent role here must surely be one unmentioned in her University profile: longstanding Governor and currently Chair of Governors at Bishop’s Itchington Primary School.

Bishop’s Itchington is a South Warwickshire village/parish south-east of Royal Leamington Spa and about 18 miles from Coventry, which, as we’ll see, is more immediately relevant. It has a lengthy history too, its name combining references to the passing River Itchen and the Bishop of the afore-mentioned Lichfield Cathedral.

In many European countries, and unquestionably in France with its 35,000 communes, even its reduced present-day population of around 2,000 would make Bishop’s Itchington what we would call a principal local authority in its own right, with an elected mayor, a full range of local powers and responsibilities, and significant control of its own funding.

But in a middle England parish council, without even these basics, where, you might reasonably ask, is there the potential even for much passing interest, never mind drama?  To which the answer is: in its elected councillors, and, more precisely, those elected in 1949 to form what became the first female majority council in the UK.

It’s a hefty claim, but, in respect of a village/parish whose primary school Chair of Governors just happens to be a national authority on such matters, pretty authoritative.

Profesor Richardson herself summarises – this time on YouTube.  Edith Chapple-Hyam, Chair of the village Women’s Institute, was fed up with the all-male parish council’s lack of action on issues such as accessible electricity and running water, social housing, policing and speed restrictions, the sewage works, and public spaces, particularly for children.

In short, she and her WI members saw areas like Coventry being built up after the War and wanted a piece of the action.  So, when an election was announced, she and five WI committee members submitted their nominations.

Most of the sitting councillors assumed that, as no doubt regularly happened, the election would go uncontested and they would be re-elected by default.  Only one, therefore, bothered to submit his papers before nominations closed.

He was duly elected, but alongside all six women, who effectively – in both senses – took over.  And now, just the 72 years on, the Bishop’s Itchington story has been both informatively and highly entertainingly dramatised as a ‘folk musical’ and one of Coventry’s UK City of Culture 2021 events.

Entitled ‘Petticoat Council’, I saw it myself recently, and the mix of storytelling, song, dance and puppetry melded together by playwright Frankie Meredith – herself the great-niece of Ivy Payne, one of the six victorious councillors – is a delight, unquestionably worth catching if you ever get the chance.

My sole initial reservation had been the slightly cheesy title, for which I was prepared to blame the Americans, who had instantly labelled a very similar women’s power grab in Umatilla, Oregon back in 1916 a ‘Petticoat Revolution’.

But I was wrong. It apparently came from a local newspaper, reporting in 1952 how the men on the council were plotting to “overthrow petticoat rule”, as “the women have been getting too bossy”. Material for a sequel perhaps?

______________________

A version of this blog, with an accompanying photograph – of the councillors, not me – was published in the Birmingham Post on 15th July under the title The ‘Petticoat Council’ and a slice of Midland History

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Backroom or backlit? Council meetings post-Covid

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin

This week two councillor colleagues of mine told me of meetings they’d attended, one an unusual face to face gathering, the other online. For one friend it was the first time she had been to the Town Hall in almost a year. She and her colleagues sat, each at their own table, in an echoing chamber and raised their voices in order to be heard. It was an informal meeting of councillors, officers and other public servants, called to debate sensitive issues in person so that information could be shared freely and confidentially. The issues were serious and compounded by lockdown and stretched resources, an unwelcome distraction at any time. However, this turned out to be a meeting filled with laughter, jokes and gentle teasing. There were interjections and interruptions which helped the meeting flow freely. Delight in seeing each other was tempered only by the acknowledgment of how long it had been since they had last done so.

My other friend told me of an online meeting where an argument had taken place and where one person had cried after making a very personal speech. She observed that what she called “the protection of the screen” meant others were not afraid to show their reaction to the emotions on display but equally the meeting had been stripped bare of physical comfort, an arm around a shoulder or a squeeze of the hand.

These two accounts got me thinking about what we gain and what we lose when we meet online. There’s an interesting seam of academic literature on what meetings are, their role in policy making, the artefacts they produce and of particular interest to local government practitioners, what they tell us about what councillors actually do all day (Brown, Reed & Yarrow: 2017; Freeman: 2008, 2019; Freeman & Maybin: 2011; Llewelyn: 2005). What no one has yet had the chance to explore is the terrain of the online meeting. My own research has used webcast meetings as a rich source of data. Not all UK authorities broadcast public meetings prior to the pandemic but there is now a growing nationwide archive of the formal business of local authorities open to research. What might we want to learn from a closer look? Are individual councillors more or less influenced in their decision making by what they hear from fellow politicians or officers? What of the informal behaviours in meetings – the notes passed, the interruptions, the heckling, the laughter and the eye rolls? In real life these act as lubricants to the flow of discourse and breathing space for thought and reflection. How are they replicated in an online world? If you’re busy on the WhatsApp finding out what your friends are thinking, how much attention are you giving to what is being said?

Arguably, it might not be worth the effort of exploration. The legislation that enables online meetings in English and Welsh local authorities expires in May. The roll out of the vaccine means a roadmap back to the council chamber – alongside the doorstep for local election campaigning – might just be in reach. No doubt those first few ‘real’ meetings will be different. We will have to relearn what it means to speak and listen in person, without the protection and comfort of our screens and homes. We may have gained bigger audiences. Residents, having exhausted Netflix, may be turning to council meetings for entertainment. Maybe not. Anecdotally, councils aren’t directing too much effort into collating viewing figures right now, but having turned the cameras on, it may be difficult to turn them off. We can only wait and see.

I suppose for me it’s always been what happens ‘back stage’ in politics that’s piqued my interest. Privileged access to such space has shown me there’s always so much more to meetings than first meets the eye. It might be happening online, but I’ll wager not to the extent or with the nuance of the past. Back lighting is more of an imperative than backroom dealing right now.

And so I’m reminded of another story a fellow councillor told me years ago about meetings and what goes on in them. Sadly he’s no longer around, so it’s safe to relate. He’d been sent to observe a council meeting in another authority to check on behaviour and conduct. Everything he actually saw taking place was no better or worse than in any other council, he said. The real problem was behind the scenes. The leaders of all three parties represented in that chamber actually carried out negotiations by leaving notes for each other on the top of the old Victorian cisterns in the gents toilets. They were all men. The chief executive, with whom they had disagreements was a short woman who was never going to find them there.

Cllr. Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and is a member of the UK delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.

References:
Brown, H., Reed, A. & Yarrow, T., (2017), “Introduction: towards an ethnography of meeting”, Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute, 23:S1, 10-26
Freeman, R., (2019), “The role of the councillor and the work of the meeting”, Local Government Studies,
46:4, 564-582
Freeman, R. & Maybin, J., (2011), “Documents, practices and policy”, Evidence & Policy, 7:2, 155-170
Llewellyn, N., (2005), “Audience Participation in Political Discourse: A Study of Public Meetings”, Sociology,
39:4, 697-716

Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris and me

Chris Game

If only Birmingham weren’t in Tier 3 … I could prop up bars in city centre pubs, casually conversing with fascinated fellow-drinkers: “You know that Kamala Harris, the American Vice-President-elect – yeah, the one wearing the Elvis-style white trouser ‘power suit’ for her victory speech.

“Well, I was a professorial contemporary of her Dad, Donald, at California’s prestigious Stanford University, don’t you know?  Thanks, mine’s another Plum Porter.”

Sadly, with Plum Porter purveyors currently closed, I’m driven to search for alternative captive audiences.  However, in contrast to bits of the current series of The Crown, this boast, while it may not ‘ring true’, actually IS true.  Before coming to INLOGOV in 1979 my employers for the previous five years were indeed Stanford – the posh, private, but definitely prestigious university north-westish of Silicon Valley.  

At least, that was Kamala’s Dad’s main workplace – I said ‘contemporary’ not ‘colleague’!  Mine was Stanford’s British Studies Center – note the spelling – at the also posh but less sunshiny Cliveden House on a National Trust estate near Maidenhead, where some hundred or so American students would come to spend two or three semesters of their undergrad years.

And the ‘Professor’ bit?  Well, as everyone knows, almost all US university academics have that generic title. ‘Full’ Professors are the real deal, while my Cliveden colleagues and I were ‘academic personnel’ – but on envelopes from HQ ‘Assistant Professors’.

It’s been mildly disquieting to see some UK universities going down the ‘Assistant Professor’ route – Warwick, for instance – but I’m not in the least bitter. I just regret not saving at least a few of those envelopes, because in four subsequent Birmingham decades I never managed even that.

Jamaican-born former economics Professor Donald Harris is/was at the distant other end of the scale: an Emeritus Professor since retiring early from Stanford after an exceptionally distinguished career and numerous international academic awards.

Here’s the thing, though.  Harris joined Stanford in 1972, yet in my creepily retained 600-page 1974/5 Stanford University Bulletin we Clivedenites and our taught courses all get several individual mentions, yet Donald not one.  Which, for apparently “the first Black person to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department”, seemed rather odd.

Still, it provides a link to his elder daughter’s string of ‘firsts’ that actually prompted this blog: the first major personal career choice made by the first woman, first African American, and first Asian-American US Vice-President-elect.  California-born – for those, like President Trump, still questioning her Presidential eligibility; and her name, incidentally, pronounced not at all like ‘Pamela’, but ‘Comma-lah’ – from the Sanscrit for lotus flower.

Which is also relevant, because Kamala’s parents divorced when she was just seven, meaning she and her sister, Maya, were brought up largely by their Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan – a bio-medical scientist, whose career in breast cancer research was every bit as outstanding as her husband’s, but who in 2009 would die of cancer herself.

It was her mother’s acceptance of a research post at McGill University Hospital in French-speaking Montreal that chiefly determined that Kamala went first to a French-speaking elementary school.  Then her mother moved the family again, so Kamala could attend Westmount High School, Quebec’s only public school offering so-called Advanced Placement courses for potentially university/college credit.

That university/college choice in by now the early 1980s, though, was definitely Kamala’s. After several majority-white schools, and her parents working in eminent but predominantly white institutions, she sought a wholly different experience. Young, gifted and black, she would live, learn, socialise, and at times protest against South African apartheid, with black students in a black university in a black city.

She would therefore attend one of the hundred or so HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities – and arguably the most renowned: Howard University in Washington DC, the African American community’s ‘Chocolate City’. And a short subway ride to both her current Capitol Hill workplace in the Senate and her future one in the White House. Back then it was no part of any life plan, but it can serve as a useful putdown today to those who accuse her of being ‘not really black’ or ‘not black enough’.

In the early 1970s Stanford University – students and staff – was unmistakeably Californian and white.  But I remember quite early learning of and being fascinated by the whole HBCU concept – partly because of the then still relatively recent appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American Supreme Court judge.

The HBCU initialism itself – not technically an acronym – is comparatively recent, a product of the historic 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Higher Education Acts. But the Black Colleges themselves date back in some cases 170+ years to before the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

Even following abolition, certainly in the Southern states, there was a century of institutionalised racial segregation of housing, medical care, employment, transportation and, of course, education.  And even universities and colleges that didn’t completely bar African Americans usually applied tight quotas, with all the other manifestations of discrimination.

One of those barred was future Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had applied to the University of Maryland Law School and been rejected through its segregation policy effectively banning blacks studying with whites.  He therefore attended and graduated with distinction from, yes, Howard University Law School – and later successfully sued Maryland for its discriminatory admissions policy.

Quite a role model, had Kamala been looking for one at the time – just as she surely will be to this and future generations of aspiring university students, female and male.

 

A version of this article appeared in The Birmingham Post on 26th November 2020.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

The Transformative Politics of the European Green Deal

by Jon Bloomfield

COVID 19 has highlighted our fragile relationship to the planet. But it represents a minor challenge compared to the permanent havoc that runaway climate change threatens. Politicians and governments – some at least – are beginning to recognise the scale of the danger. In this article we assess the evolution of policy thinking on how to make climate transitions happen; the potential of the European Green Deal; and how progressives need to shape it and any UK counterpart to meet the challenges of modern society.

The European Green Deal initiative launched in December 2019 arose from a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum. Yet its central thrust of active government offers the prospect of reviving a battered social democracy. Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post COVID19 offers a second chance. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by a recognition of the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis but it offers major opportunities for social democracy, if it is able to embrace a pluralist and environmentalist approach suited to the challenges of the 21st century.

So what can a ‘social democracy re-born’ offer?  The starting point has to be a recognition that the climate crisis requires a re-making of everyday politics, on the Left as well as the Right. The 19th and 20th century model of high-carbon, fossil fuel intensive economies where the core task is for ‘man to conquer nature’ has run its course. To safeguard our common future a new low carbon model of sustainable development has to become the ‘common sense ‘of the age. That’s what the policy specialists and architects of the European and the US Green Deal have formulated. Politicians and parties across the spectrum are trying to catch up. The anticipated post-Covid, green recovery programmes in the run-up to COP 26 will show which political forces are best able to translate this thinking into everyday politics and to make low or zero-carbon initiatives the golden thread that runs through their policy proposals.

The elements of active government, collective goods, and social inclusion chime with the social democratic tradition yet it needs to overcome the contradictory baggage of utopianism on the one hand, and industrialism on the other. There are four areas in particular where a shift in social democratic thinking is needed.

Firstly, it needs to adopt a 21st Century modernity. The Green Industrial Revolution should no longer be the metaphor of choice. It speaks to a technocratic, top-down model of traditional Keynesianism.  This conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals.  Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas.

Secondly, the potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions should be highlighted.

Thirdly, pluralism has to be at the heart of any effective, green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision.

Fourthly, the 21st century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, Continental and global.   The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change which is why centralised, top-down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission-driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge-led approach where national government specifies the broad direction but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level.  The classic big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle on the UK’s COVID test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.

Our article indicates the openings here for a pluralist, ecological Left. The run-up to the next global climate conference –COP26- will be a vital period which will show whether parties and governments across the world are prepared to meet the climate change challenge.

Jon Bloomfield HeadDr. Jon Bloomfield. Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.

Policy Advisor on EU Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (KIC) programme; writes on cities, governance and migration as well as climate change.